The Great Lighthouse Mystery
Of Eilean Mor
As far as mysteries go you couldn’t invent a better story. A story that has over time led to some of the most extraordinary of speculations and has since evolved a folklore all of its own.
Is there a lonelier, more isolated job other than that of a lighthouse keeper? For those seeking solace, with time to meditate, surrounded by the high seas, without the inherent dangers involved in being a mariner, then perhaps the lighthouse with its daily routines is as close as you’ll get to a monastic life. Yet the strange and the inexplicable are always keen to poke their icy fingers into the lives of isolated men.
The Flannan Isles, located in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, are a set of small and uninhabited rocky islands with a curious history. One of the islands, Eilean Mor, was the setting of a great historical mystery – the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in 1900. To this day, a concrete explanation for the strange event remains elusive.
Since the automation of the lighthouse in 1971, the Flannan Isles have been without permanent residents. The Isles get their name from a 7th century Irish saint of the same name who is said to have built a stone church (one of the few man-made structures still found today) on the island of Eilean Mor. The Flannan Isles are located 32 km (20 miles) from their closest neighbour, the Isle of Lewis.
Steeped in fantastical tales of hauntings, Eilean Mor (meaning Big Isle) is the largest of the Flannan islands, despite its modest size of 17.5 acres (7.1 hectares). The first and most populous inhabitation of the island is from the days of St. Flannan and his followers of the Celtic church. Shortly after they abandoned the island, it received a long-standing reputation as an unlucky place full of dangerous spirits. The superstitious tales of Eilean Mor involve beings such as giant birds and little men, as well as the haunting the St. Flannan and his “flock.” The stories were enough to keep shepherds (not to mention most other people), from spending the night there.
Nonetheless, the lack of inhabitants could have increased the ghostly presence on the island, as several ships apparently found the rocky Flannan Isles difficult to navigate when less than ideal conditions struck. To prevent this, a 22.6 meter (74 foot) lighthouse was completed in 1899 to improve the passage.
For centuries, over the nighttime and gray, gloaming seas, the twinkle of a light across these churning waters have guided mariners through rough conditions and perilous passages. In ancient times, it was fires blazing upon their hilltop platforms, and from the turn of the 18th century it was the modern lighthouses that illuminated the way over the vast, treacherous seas. For centuries, these outposts were manned by the brave few who would sequester themselves away from the world to man the beacons, and it was a mostly a lonely, forlorn occupation beset with numerous hazards. Many of these lighthouse keepers bravely faced these hardships to dutifully keep the lights burning even as powerful winds and potent storms lashed out at them, always courageously pushing forth in the face of the angry sea to provide safe passage to those who needed it. It may come as no surprise that such isolated, dangerous places, often perched atop barren rock in the whipping wind, have proven to be the origin of many legends and mysteries throughout their history. One such case comes from the wave lashed, storm ravaged coast of Scottish islands, where a brave trio of lighthouse keepers kept vigil over the ocean, only to step forth into oblivion to become one of the most perplexing maritime mysteries there is.
Located around 65 miles off of Scotland’s cold, wind battered northwestern coast the group of secluded tiny islands known as the Flannan Islands, are also know in Scottish Gaelic as Na h-Eileanan Flannach, and also called “The Seven Hunters.” Part of the Outer Hebrides island chain, the Flannan Islands take their name from the 7th century Irish preacher, and later saint, St. Flannan, who once inhabited the island called Eilean Mor, meaning “Big Isle,” along with his followers of the then ubiquitous Celtic church and built a chapel here. After the decline of the Celtic Church, St. Flannan and his congregation would abandon these desolate shores, and the Flannan Islands would become the mostly uninhabited rocky specks of land they have remained to this day.
Even before the modern mystery which would make them famous, the Flannan Islands have long been surrounded by spooky local legends and lore. In particular the island of Eilean Mor for centuries was regarded as a magical place with a certain powerful aura surrounding it, which could be felt or sensed by those who passed the island by. There was always an undeniable pull exerted from these shores, something tugging at the strings of consciousness. Sheep herders, who were the only ones known to regularly visit the island, called it “The Other Country,” and believed it to be populated by spirits, fairy folk, elves, and other supernatural beings, as well as giant birds which were said to prowl the area. Sheep herders and fishermen who visited the island were said to use special rituals to protect themselves from these magical island inhabitants, and were said to communicate with them through a special dialect just for this purpose. Boats that approached too close to shore here were said to sometimes be dashed upon jagged rocks that seemed to spring out from the roiling froth out of nowhere, and the island was mostly given wide berth by those who knew of its supernatural mysteries. Additionally, it was long believed that those who did not follow the rules of the island’s “little people” would never return, and many who went missing in the vicinity were said to have fallen victim to these mysterious spirits. Indeed, sheep herders were said to be so frightened of the island’s numerous enigmatic beings that they never spent the night there, always returning to the mainland before darkness fell lest they never return.
It was on this uninhabited, remote island steeped in magical folklore that in 1896 a lighthouse began construction atop a grassy perch on the highest point of Eilean Mor. with reinforced walls meant to withstand the punishing winds and storms that the area was known for, the Flannan Islands lighthouse, completed in 1899, served as a beacon to passing ships, guiding them past the dangerous rocky islands, and perhaps dangers from beyond our world, with its potent light that could be seen from up to 25 miles away. The only inhabitants upon this craggy outpost amid the ferocious churning sea were three lighthouse keepers assigned to keep watch over the premises, perform repairs and maintenance, and man the light in two week shifts; James Ducat (43), Donald Macarthur (40), and Thomas Marshall (28). It was no doubt a profoundly lonely, isolated existence, with no radio contact with the mainland, but for one full year, the lighthouse performed admirably, and like clockwork the powerful light would flash out over the savage seas twice every 30 seconds to warn any passing ships of the rocky doom that awaited them if they came too close.
Things began to become odd on December 15, when a Captain Holman aboard the American steamer Archtor passed by Eilean Mor and noticed that the lighthouse was out of operation. He promptly sent out a wireless telegram informing the mainland of the issue, but it was for unknown reasons not immediately passed on to the Northern Lighthouse Board, which was in charge of administrating the lighthouse. It was particularly odd since the lighthouse was regularly monitored by telescope from the nearby Lewis Island, yet the person responsible for checking on the light at the time, a Roderick MacKenzie, had failed to notice that it was out, possibly due to a bout of uncommonly thick mists that were enveloping the area that week. Making matters worse was a spell of foul weather that descended upon the islands and made further investigation impossible until things cleared up. For over a week, no one was quite sure what was going on over there on the cold, desolate, windswept island of Eilean Mor.
On December 26, 1900, a Captain James Harvey, aboard the ship called the Hesperus, finally made his way to Eilean Mor along with supplies and a relief lighthouse keeper by the name of Joseph Moore, who was to replace one of the other keepers. Even before they arrived it was apparent that something was decidedly amiss. The island’s tiny dock, upon which at least someone should have been waiting, was empty, there was no relief flag flying in the wind as there should have been, and blowing the ship’s horn and sending up flares produced no response. The only answer to their calls was the howling of the wind, the piercing cries of seabirds, and the relentless crashing roar of the frigid waves against the rocks. By all appearances, the island seemed completely deserted, with no signs of life anywhere. A concerned Moore volunteered to disembark on the island to investigate along with one other crew member, and the two rowed ashore welcomed by total silence from the occupants.
Moore would later report that even as he ascended a narrow set of steep, wind-kissed stairs to approach the seemingly abandoned lighthouse, he had been set upon by a palpable sense of dread which went beyond just the spooky atmosphere of a complete void of welcome and the bleak, lifeless location. The sense of foreboding was so stifling and heavy that he felt inclined to turn back, but was able to keep his composure in the face of this nearly unbearable wall of inexplicable fear and continue to the closed gate and the door of the lighthouse, which was found to be firmly shut but unlocked. When the door creaked open, it was found that two of the three oilskin coats that should have been hanging in the entryway were nowhere to be seen, and additionally no fire had been lit to banish away the chill dampness that seeped into everything there. A wet, chilled dark enveloped the place. Oddly, a clock on the wall was frozen and not working, and it soon became apparent that none of the other clocks there were working either.
The two men continued into the lighthouse to make their way to the kitchen, and found that an uneaten meal was sitting upon the table under a broken clock as if patiently waiting for someone who would soon come to eat it, yet there was no one. A chair beside the table had been overturned in a way that seemed to suggest that whoever had sat there had bolted up from it in haste. The dishes in the sink had been washed, and the kitchen had been tidied up. Now very aware that something was quite off, Moore nevertheless continued with his search to find that the beds were untouched, and that the lamps had been cleaned and refilled with oil, but not used. There was also a canary in a cage, which was found starving and barely alive. There was no sign of the missing oilskin coats. The lighthouse lamp itself was found to be in perfect working order, yet sat unlit and unused. At this point, Moore and his companion decided that things were getting a bit too creepy, and hurriedly headed back to their ship to tell the others of what they had discovered. A subsequent search party by the Hesperus crew turned the lighthouse lamp back on and scoured the lighthouse and the rest of the island, but could find no trace of the missing lighthouse keepers. In the meantime, Captain Harvey sent a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board Headquarters, in Edinburgh, which read:
A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island.
Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.
Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate. I have left Moore, MacDonald, Buoymaster and two Seamen on the island to keep the light burning until you make other arrangements. Will not return to Oban until I hear from you. I have repeated this wire to Muirhead in case you are not at home. I will remain at the telegraph office tonight until it closes, if you wish to wire me.
A few days later, a follow-up investigation was launched to the island by the Lighthouse Board, headed by superintendent Robert Muirhead, for whom Harvey had intended his telegram. This investigation would turn up a few new details, such as the presence of ropes sprawled over the rocks at the bottom of the island’s sheer cliffs, that the wooden box in which the ropes had been kept was missing, and that the iron railings around the landing area had been warped and twisted somehow, with a sizable chunk of rock having been dislodged from the cliff face to become a heap of rubble at the bottom. It was found that a life buoy was also missing. The log from the lighthouse was also found, which provided some intriguing, yet ultimately frustrating clues that would only deepen the mystery.
In the log entry for December 12, lighthouse keeper Thomas Marshall had stated that the island had been besieged by ferocious winds the likes of which he had never seen before in his career. Eerily, mention is also made that the keeper James Duscat had been sullen and quiet, and that the other keeper, William McArthur, who was known to be a hardheaded brawler, had been hopelessly crying. Further entries from December 13 described how the men had all been trapped within the lighthouse by the raging storm and that they had all been praying profusely. The final log entry was a scrawled, cryptic note which read “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.” This was made all the more bizarre by the fact that no storms had been reported in the area on the 12th, 13th, and 14th of December, and indeed the weather was listed as “calm but stormy,” certainly not the potent maelstrom described in the log. This was further supported by the fact that the lighthouse had been perfectly visible from neighboring Lewis Island on the days in question, and there were no reports of particularly bad weather at the time or anything amiss. All should have been fairly calm. The only truly severe storm to hit the area did not come until the 17th, well after that last, sinister log entry, and this still should not have been a problem for a reinforced lighthouse manned by a seasoned crew of veterans, certainly not enough to send them to their rooms desperately praying and causing one purported tough guy to cry inconsolably. Muirhead eventually came to the conclusion that the men had been alerted to the crashing of the storage crate containing the ropes smashing upon the rocks during the storm. They had then gone out to repair the damage when a massive, freak wave had washed them all out to sea. He would write in his official evaluation of the situation:
I am of the opinion, that the most likely explanation of this disappearance of the men, is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday, 15 December to the proximity of the West landing, to secure the box with the mooring ropes, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on the island, and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force.
Nevertheless, there were questions left swirling around this theory. For instance, since only two of the waterproof oilskins were missing, why would one of the keepers go out into frigid, stormy conditions without his? Also, why would a group of by all accounts very experienced seamen and lighthouse keepers choose to go out together in tandem in such perilous weather, especially when there were rules and regulations which expressly forbade such a thing? Also, wouldn’t they have been wary of rogue waves hitting the shoreline in such conditions? There was also the fact that no bodies had been washed ashore, or ever found at all for that matter, the weather reports for the times in question showed relatively calm conditions, and the keepers had been acting out of character in the days leading up to the vanishing. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the last log entry clearly stated that the storm was over and everything was calm. Just what was going on here?
None of the missing men have ever been found, and the mystery of the vanished lighthouse keepers of Eilean Mor has over the years accrued a wide range of theories ranging from the somewhat plausible to the ludicrous. The most common theory is precisely as Muirhead said way back in 1900, that the trio had gone out into a storm, despite none being reported, and then been swept away by a monstrous sudden wave. Another is that one of the men had slipped while trying to retrieve the landing crate and the other two had desperately gone out to try and save him, after which they too slipped down the cliff face and were washed out to sea. Yet if this was the case, and the two had been in such a hurry, why had the front gate and the front door been dutifully and firmly shut? And what about the calm weather that was reported at the time in question, or the one remaining oilskin? And just what about that last log entry proclaiming calm conditions and that the storm was over?
Other ideas speculate that the three lighthouse keepers either intentionally left the island to escape their life of solitude or were even kidnapped by someone, while others say that there had been some disagreement between the men which had led to violence, or that one had gone stir crazy cooped up on the remote island and then murdered his colleagues in a bout of bloodthirsty insanity. Others have suggested that the events and the condition of the lighthouse in which it was discovered have been exaggerated and sensationalized over the years, leaving us with a twisted, warped view of what really happened. Of course with such strange, inexplicable disappearances, there are bound to be more far out theories on offer. Aliens, government plots, sea monsters, giant squids, and sudden inter-dimensional portals opening up have all been seriously offered up as explanations, as well as the idea that the island’s legendary supernatural inhabitants may have had something to do with it.
In the ensuing decades, there have been numerous bizarre reports that have suggested something decidedly weird has been continually going on at Eilean Mor Island. Lighthouse keepers in the years after the disappearances have reported hearing disembodied voices whispering on the wind or even the names of the three missing keepers’ names being shouted, and insisted that it is a forsaken place. There have even been reports of sightings of the island’s supposed resident giant birds, swooping and diving above this seemingly cursed place which seems to almost exist in a realm unto itself. In the early 1970s, the lighthouse became fully automated, as have most other lighthouses in the modern era, and released any more people from having to stand the accursed atmosphere of this seemingly damned speck of rock.
In many ways, the Eilean Mor lighthouse mystery offers us much to think about. It is a tantalizing view into an era when lighthouse keepers were not yet obsolete; a testament to the times when there were the few stalwart individuals who risked life and limb in the face of cold hardship to keep sea passages safe. It is also a tale that makes us question what it was that kept the lighthouse keepers themselves safe. Were there mysteries of the sea that most people cannot even fathom plaguing these sentinels upon their rocky perches? We are also confronted here with a mystery that has continually perplexed those who try to come to some understanding of it. Did these men merely succumb to the elements and die as they always knew they might, in the fury of the ocean’s wrath? Were they an example of those who had found their rugged position too much to no longer bear? Or did they perhaps find that there was more to the talk of magical islands and faerie folk than most would think? One wonders if these men were confronted by the elements, human insanity, or forces that we cannot comprehend or those which come from some other place. We may never know the answers to what happened to the lighthouse keepers of Eilean Mor, but it is a fascinating glimpse into a different, simpler time, and the mysteries of our great ocean dominated domain nevertheless.
Local inhabitants offer another explanation. Eilean Mor was once a Viking outpost, and a ghostly Viking longboat was said to haunt the local seas. Indeed, the crew of the Fairwin – one of the vessels sent out to investigate why the lighthouse had gone out on December 15 – reported seeing a ghostly longboat on that night, crewed by warriors with faces the color of bone: Three men in oilskin raingear were rowing that boat. Could the lighthouse keepers have run afoul of ancient ghosts?
A rogue or “freak” wave, is one of the more popular modern hypotheses to explain the missing men. The phenomenon of an extremely large wave suddenly appearing and sweeping the men from the island may be founded in the fact that the weather of the time was said to be “calm, but stormy” and, according to Alasdair Macaulay, a researcher of the mystery: “I have heard about a woman at Crowlista in Uig who had been hanging out her washing on that day” when she saw a giant wall of water coming in from the west so “she apparently ran back to the house as this large wave hit the shore. Her washing and washing line were said to have been swept away.” This too is difficult to ascertain, both with the hard evidence and the contradictory nature of the details of the day’s weather.
Be their story washed away by the sea or by time, and whatever the truth, the mysterious disappearance of the Eilean Mor lighthouse keepers remains one of Scotland’s most enduring mysteries.
And with that, perhaps it should stay a mystery.